South-east Asia and America under Donald Trump

The election of Donald Trump as America's next president has introduced uncertainty into ties between the world's superpower and other countries. Five scholars at the ISEAS -Yusof Ishak Institute evaluate the likely impact on key nations in South-east Asia.

President-elect Donald Trump during a meeting with reporters, columnists and New York Times company leaders at the publication's headquarters in New York on Nov 22, 2016. PHOTO: NYTIMES

US-Philippines: Economy bad, politics good

Filipino students display a photo of US President-elect Donald Trump during a rally in front of the US embassy in Manila. PHOTO: AFP

Relations with the United States are deeper, broader and more defining for the Philippines than for any other country in South-east Asia.

The Philippines is the only former US colony in the region and is the most economically and militarily dependent on the US. These unique US influences are at the core of President Rodrigo Duterte's recent declaration of his personal separation economically and militarily from the US and his call for a more independent Philippine foreign policy.

These unique structural dependencies and Mr Duterte's crusade to reduce them have determined the early Philippine responses to Mr Donald Trump's victory.


US-Malaysia: Stuck in neutral gear

Malaysian Muslim school girls pose for a selfie with a cut-out of Donald Trump during an event to follow the election results in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO: AFP

America is Malaysia's third-largest trading partner and the latter is hopeful the Comprehensive Partnership the two countries signed in 2014 will continue under the Trump presidency. The US is a key export market for Malaysia, worth around RM73.7 billion (S$24 billion) last year.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was quick to congratulate Mr Trump on Facebook on the latter's "extraordinary victory" and said he believed his country's "partnership with the US would remain because (Mr Trump) too needs the partnership with Malaysia and other countries".

Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed chimed in later, saying perceptions of Mr Trump have improved as he has softened his rhetoric on Muslims since winning the election.


US-Thailand: Stagnation and missed opportunities

A general view of a busy street following the death of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in Bangkok, Thailand. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Donald Trump has yet to finalise his choices for senior foreign policy posts. He ran a campaign bereft of a vision for American policy towards Asia. The political, economic and security issues confronting South-east Asia and its constituent countries merited no mention during the presidential campaign.

It is, however, possible to identify factors likely to bear on US-Thai relations in the years ahead. On balance, these factors point to likely stagnation in those relations despite the start of a new reign in Bangkok and the opportunity with which the eventual collapse of the political project of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta will present Washington.

Such is the thrall in which Mr Trump holds the pro-trade Republican members of both Houses of the US Congress that his party's supine majority in the Senate will not dare move to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement before President Barack Obama leaves office.


US-Indonesia: Growing distance

A man cycles past graffiti condemning Donald Trump, on a street in Surabaya, Indonesia's east Java. PHOTO: AFP

Several Indonesian leaders, including President Joko Widodo, have congratulated Mr Donald Trump on his victory and signalled a desire to continue diplomatic and economic ties.

But others were less enthused: Vice-President Jusuf Kalla called Mr Trump "a threat to global peace". Mr Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council, or council of Muslim scholars, similarly expressed concern that Mr Trump's victory on the back of anti-Muslim bigotry could lead to new tensions between America and the Muslim world.

Recognising that Mr Trump's win could worsen tension in the Asia-Pacific, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu cautioned Mr Trump not to "bring that matter here (to Indonesia) - don't give us more problems".


US-Myanmar: Loss of a white knight

A Myanmar woman walks along a sidewalk in Yangon. PHOTO: AFP

Under the Obama administration, the United States has been Myanmar's white knight by bringing Naypyitaw out of the international political and economic wilderness through sustained engagement with the Thein Sein administration, beginning in 2011.

The lifting of economic sanctions paved the way for Myanmar to seek normalcy in global trade following decades of imposed isolationism.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to the US in September took bilateral ties to a new high with the establishment of the US-Myanmar Partnership. The visit was also an opportunity for the US to demonstrate bipartisan support to expand people-to-people ties, deepen bilateral economic engagement, work towards an open skies treaty, and initiate a new USAID loan portfolio guarantee.


US-Vietnam: Blow to economy and security

Two Vietnamese students take a selfie with a paper model Donald Trump during an election watch event at the US embassy in Hanoi. PHOTO: AFP

Mr Donald Trump's rise is consequential for Vietnam in two main aspects. Economically, if he sticks to the protectionist rhetoric espoused during the presidential election campaign, Vietnam will be hit hard. The United States is Vietnam's largest export market, accounting for more than 20 per cent of its annual export turnover.

While on the election campaign trail, Mr Trump had accused Vietnam and some other countries of "stealing" American jobs. Should he raise tariffs to block imports from Vietnam, as he said he would do to Chinese goods, Vietnamese businesses, both domestic and foreign-invested, will face major losses.

Even if Mr Trump leaves the tariff rates untouched, he may have already caused irreparable damage to Vietnam through his vehement objection to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with Vietnam projected to be the biggest beneficiary in the 12-member grouping. As Vietnam's private and state-owned enterprises are underperforming, it seeks to boost exports and inward foreign investments to propel the economy. With the TPP stalled, Hanoi will need to look elsewhere to overcome its economic woes.


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